By Don Heckman
Azerbaijani-born, Hollywood composer/singer/pianist Ella Leya (Naroditskaya) has released her new CD, “Secret Lives of Women.”
Her previous two recordings, “Queen of Night” and “Russian Romance” received high praise in Billboard Magazine, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. Borders named her “Russian Romance” one of the Ten Best World Music recordings of 2006. Her songs have appeared in such films and television shows as “Ocean’s Twelve,” “PU-239,” “Samantha Who,” “Dirty Sexy Money” and “My Sassy Girl.”
Ella lives in Laguna Beach, California and London.
DH: Let’s start at the beginning. How did the idea for this collection of songs, inspired by some of the most remarkable women in history, come about?
EL: The idea came to me as I stood at the Place de L’Alma in Paris, just a few meters away from the site of Princess Diana’s fatal crash. I was thinking of all of my beloved heroines – labeled by “male” history as Femmes Fatales. What if I try to give them voice? So they could reveal their side of the story, so they could stand up for their lost causes. And, hopefully, this time win. That’s how the idea of Secret Lives of Women was conceived.
DH: Princess Diana never made it to the throne, but Anne Boleyn did. And in “Touch ’n Go Game” you describe what it cost her.
EL: I imagined Anne Boleyn the night before her execution. In the Tower of London. In the same room where she had spent the night before her coronation, just three years ago.
DH: And your lyrics are darkly descriptive of what she experiences:
“My tears dry before they shed, I am about to lose my head.
The stone is cold, my hands are tied, I’m on my knees stripped of pride…”
EL: What was she thinking about? How could she comprehend this meteoric change — from the throne of England to the block? From being the king’s one and only beloved wife and queen to a witch, traitor and whore. All these because she had a strong mind, sharp tongue, and… couldn’t deliver a male heir:
“You kicked me to the curb of hell to cast away my wicked spell,
And here it is, the final chord – I’m on the block, you hold the sword…”
EL: So here’s the queen of the thousand days — most of that time drained by pregnancies. And it was she, not Henry VIII — schizophrenic, impotent and probably affected by syphilis — who reshaped the entire future of England and the world. And, not to forget, who gave England its best Queen, Elizabeth I.
DH: I’m also fascinated by your choice of women who reach back into the pages of ancient history – Sappho and Cleopatra.
EL: The album’s opening song, Wish I Could, is a never-written verse by Sappho, the Greek poetess from the Isle of Lesbos:
“You’re just a cloud passing through my sky…
You’re just a song spinning in my head…
You’re just a dream haunting through the night”
She writes it to her lover. Yet, according to legend, she — history’s first lesbian — threw herself from a cliff after being rejected by a young sailor.
DH: And what about Cleopatra? Her story may have had a larger impact upon the history of the world, but it’s no less tragic. How did you choose to interpret her through song?
EL: It’s called What Goes Around, and it’s a contemporary take on the notorious Queen of Egypt, who was an astute political player in dangerous games with Rome, but who also had a soft spot for Roman generals. The song was inspired by her two affairs — with Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony – both of which ended in disaster:
“Traveled with you to the end of the rope…
Laid sleepless in bed while you poked around…
Cut into shreds my unworn wedding gown…”
DH: Then there’s Mata Hari, who seems a more enigmatic figure to me.
EL: She’s the ultimate archetype of the femme fatale — exotic dancer, a courtesan and alleged World War I spy. And Femme Fatale is her anthem:
“She is a mistress of deceit… before you know, you’re at her feet…
A secret alley of desire that takes you higher, higher, higher…
Until her scarlet kiss of death takes away your final breath’’
EL: The phenomenon, as well as the contradictions, of the successful woman. At the beginning of the 20th century, she was like a Hollywood star. Basically a queen in her own right, manipulating powerful men and history. And like some of my other ladies, she was a woman who came from nowhere.
DH: Like Sarah Bernhardt?
EL: Yes. She also started as a courtesan. And very soon became an empress of the stage. A brilliant actress with a golden voice. One of the wealthiest women of her time. She toured the world, accompanied by a menagerie of leopards, lions and alligators. She slept in a coffin filled with letters received from more than a thousand of her lovers. And she accomplished everything on her own.
DH: Impressive. Then there’s Princess Diana. Whose memory was the spark that triggered your Secret Lives of Women songs. How does she fit in with the other ladies?
EL: Irresistible Lies is her tribute:
“You placed me on a throne and left me all alone…”
A musical parallel to a fairy tale that turned into a nightmare of deceptions, loneliness, and Princess Diana’s ultimate self-destruction As unlikely as it may have seemed in the beginning, Princess Diana eventually turned out to be a femme fatale for English royalty. She diminished the snobbish detachment of British royalty and brought it to the front pages of magazines.
DH: Do you draw any similarity between Princess Diana and Anne Boleyn?
EL: For me, Anne Boleyn and Princess Diana resonate very strongly with each other. Because if Diana lived at the beginning of the sixteenth century, she would probably have had her head cut off at the block, too.
DH: Hmmm…gruesome thought. So let’s move in a different direction and talk about how, and if, Secret Lives of Women reflects aspects of your own life. Would it be correct to say that it does so? Specifically in some respects, more generally in others?
EL: Of course. It reflects my own life, as well as the potential in every woman, in that it’s about taking matters in your own hands, and finding your way. That’s the whole point of giving voice to each of these women, of letting it all out.
DH: You say it “reflects” your life, but how would you fit among these women?
EL: I’ve always thought that I could be any one of them. I always knew that I could achieve and succeed. I also – as much as I wanted to succeed – had this perpetual sense of fatalism. First you mobilize yourself to achieve, but at some point, nature almost takes over. And I probably would have lost exactly the way every one of them did.
DH: : So all of the places you’ve lived seem to have brought you to the point where you really can relate to the women you’ve written these songs for?
EL: Of course. Your journey is always the result of your previous experiences. The women I chose are all associated with some of my previous experiences and amassed knowledge. Of intellect and heart. But there’s more. Every creative effort one makes is also a reflection of something that’s missing, of questions unanswered. And all those qualities are part of Secret Lives of Women.
DH: Thanks, Ella. It’s been a fascinating conversation, about you and your ladies.